(part 1 of this series introduced the subject at length, and part 2 suggested that the real issue isn’t materialism, but consumerism, and that we treat teenagers like consumers in many youth ministries, so challenging them on materialism is a non-sequitur.)
What’s a good youth worker to do?
Go ahead: teach about materialism. Like I wrote previously, talk with your teenagers about how the accumulation of stuff as real life is a dead-end, an endless roundabout of temporary satisfaction. Talk about the amazing counter-cultural idea straight out of the Kingdom of God that stuff will never truly satisfy, and that true and full living will never be found in money, toys, gadgets, cars or clothes. Offer up for consideration the life-giving practices of living-with-less, serving, and giving.
And don’t just talk about these radical ideas: offer them up as the practices and programming of your ministry. I’ve never seen anything confront materialism in a teenager’s life like the hard, in-your-face realities of an effective cross-cultural missions trip or work project.
But always keep in mind that our most effective teaching and programming will never have full impact unless we begin to undo the consumer-driven underpinnings of our ministry thinking and assumptions. Start with assumptions: ask yourself (and your entire ministry team – even students), “What are the assumptions driving our ministry to teenagers? What assumptions do we have that could be a reflection of an unintentional courtship with consumerism?”
Also look at your “measuring sticks”. What do you measure to determine if you’re effective? You might find that some or all of your success metrics are reflective of an underlying approach to treating teenagers as consumers. Of course, that would mean that you need some new measuring sticks! What non-consumer measurements could reframe the assumptions of your ministry? What non-consumer measurements could you begin to use (in the wake of rejecting or diminishing those that are consumer-driven) that would be truly reflective of Kingdom values? How can we measure whether our groups are embracing Grace and Mercy, Justice, and the journey of Discipleship?
At the end of the day, it’s only when we truthfully and courageously confront our own consumerism and our consumer-driven thinking about youth work, combined with effective teaching and programming in the area of materialism, that we can hope to see change. If we do these things, and model these values in our own lives, then we can hope to have teenagers see through the materialistic veil placed on them by our cultures (and our churches!).